Tag Archives: EdTechHistory

Thinking on the Brink

I returned on Monday (June 8, 2015) from the Brink Conference in Palm Springs, CA, USA. As the name implies, Brink is a collaboration of futurists, not historians; so today I find my mind stretched between the historical focus of HCLE and the possibilities that history implies. Here’s an example.

This morning I received an email offering free, lifetime “cloud services” to LO*OP Center, Inc. as a non-profit organization. Sounds wonderful — free, accessible file storage so all HCLE participants can collaborate. But wait. In my dark entrepreneurial past I was involved with an encryption/security company, then a company specializing in data storage and forwarding services and I helped found a company that ran a server farm. I know that “the cloud” is a metaphor, not a reality. I know  that there are holes in our data encryption shields. So before signing up for this “cloud” I checked out the company’s web site and even phoned technical support. I wanted to discover “where” my data would be stored and “who” would have access to the physical machines that masquerade as a “cloud”. Pity the poor young, Philippina, technical support operator who answered my call. After consulting her knowledge-base and her supervisor she could tell me that my data would be secure “in the United States”. She could not tell me where in the US the corporate headquarters were located. I didn’t sign up for the service although it is probably just as secure as anything available. I renewed my resolve never to put critical information online but to use “the cloud” for everything I want to share.

Those of us who work in a screen-illuminated office or wander around with a connected device in our hand are living what was science fiction just a decade or two ago. At Brink, I listened to over two dozen pitches for cutting edge products and services that are available today to extend our lives, obsolete our mental and physical labor and entertain ourselves during the time we save. It was exciting, inspiring. But only fleetingly did we nod at the 10-ton elephant in the room. What happens to our human sense of meaning and purpose when we no longer need “work” as we now know it? Are we prepared to completely revise the assumptions, values and taboos on which we have built the previous 3,000 years of culture? Are we going to turn our backs to the possibility of everyone surviving without struggle because we can’t figure out how to adapt to it?

Computing, and the communication and artificial intelligence it entails, threaten the foundations of our social meritocracy. All commercial activity in the developed world is currently aimed toward a consumerism which we are exporting to lesser developed regions as fast as we can. Our valuation of everything we produce is dependent on the fundamental assumption of economics — scarcity —  which we are eliminating through our technologies. We distribute and redistribute our real wealth according to a money-mediated system of employment and “interest” — what was, at one time, called usury and is today called by the US Internal Revenue Service “unearned income”. The folks who gathered at the Brink meeting are among those best prepared to embrace this elephant but we tiptoed around her — this time. And what does the sci-fi future we viewed at Brink have to do with HCLE? As Santayana warned, we are in danger of repeating the past if we ignore it. I talk to Millennials every day who think ideas like the importance of engagement in learning are new and unique. How much further could their thinking take us if they started at the cutting edge of 30 years ago instead of having to reinvent and rediscover over and over? But the technology for idea archeology has changed so we have to put our artifacts where they are digging. That’s why HCLE is virtual — headed for “the cloud.”

In that future (which started while you were reading this blog) we need to understand how our metaphors dance with the real — what concepts are just fog created by highly creative and well-paid hype-crafters and what fundamental hypotheses are crumbling under the tread of adorable-looking robots. We are already sitting on the elephant. If we want to participate in deciding where we go together it behoves us to consider where we both came from and where we are willing to go.


History (and Future) of Education: It’s in the Details

In the History of Education, as in many other arenas, the Devil is in the Details — not only the Devil, also the opportunity to understand what works under what circumstances for what purposes. Take a look at Audrey Watters’ excellent blog on The Invented History of ‘The Factory Model of Education’. She brings us an informative and long view recap of school development and puts the use of the ‘factory model’ metaphor in context. Audrey’s thesis and critique of expectations that computing can somehow ‘automate’ education are echoed in Marc Guzdial’s May 25th blog.

From these writers and their predecessors we learn that most of the objectives touted by educational reformers today have been part of the discourse for thousands of years — our goals are not new. We are still addressing issues of compulsory vs. free choice schooling, play and games to motivate deep learning, efficiencies offered by presenting the same didactic lessons to masses of students, the role of schooling in promoting ‘industrious’ behavior and reducing idleness, and the concept of matching methods of instruction to the characteristics of the learner (whether age, personality, learning style, sociocultural background, or individual interest).

All of these topics came together and were hotly debated when personal computing burst upon the scene, the period highlighted by HCLE*. Why are we still mired in arguments about whether or not our school systems should engage in ‘mass production’ and whether ‘personalization’ is important in teaching? Ubiquitous computing (which in turn enables mass information storage and telecommunications) has created a paradigm shift that lets us respond “yes” to all choices. We can now provide ‘mass instruction’ via MOOCs, permit learners to ‘play’ in a cafeteria of YouTube lessons and open educational resources. We can convene social groups we call ‘classrooms’ and track the progress of solitary learners studying in remote corners.

So why are these surmountable details keeping us in turmoil over how to educate our children and provide adults with continuous opportunities to acquire new skills and information? I think the answer lies in our desire for a single solution, a ‘universal’, ‘unified’ system of education. The potential of computing to let us offer ‘different strokes to different folks’ brings us face to face with our deep desire for uniformity – our inner wish to be surrounded by people who share the same hopes, goals, values, interests and taboos that each of us holds dear. It’s hard work to discover what turns on an individual child. It’s challenging to build models of a future society and anticipate what our youngsters will need to learn early in their lives in order to thrive in whichever model comes to pass. In this age of labor-saving devices we need to do the mental labor of studying exactly how to craft learning environments which take advantage of the strengths and interests of each individual while providing exercise equipment to strengthen individual weaknesses. Is it our fear of unleashing a Pandora’s Box of diverse people and cultures that keeps us from jumping into the educational revisiting that computing makes possible?

The History of Computing in Learning and Education Project provides a snapshot of an historical period in which many experiments were done and much data was generated about both cognitive and physical abilities of learners. This museum will help us to recapture the lessons of the past. But that isn’t enough. We need to move forward, to exploit the capacity of our present technologies by attending to the details, not the generalizations, of learning. Just as we can now mass produce and distribute clothing and cars, we can now mass produce and distribute the information, facts and basic skills that ‘factory model’ schools were invented to disseminate.

Our new challenge is to harness computing technologies, coupled with excellent teachers filling many new roles, to customize our educational offerings for each individual learner. Assessing the diversity of interests, talents, experience, goals and cultures each learner brings into the educational nexus results in a complex model of the individual student. This is a ‘big data’ problem we can now handle if only we can figure out what factors to track. Understanding how to pair the learner with the most effective stimuli to foster engagement, problem-solving, creativity and emotional well-being will require a huge amount of new and detailed educational research. In the end we may discover that learners themselves are best able to select their own educational experiences.

As observed by our fellow bloggers at the beginning of this essay, the questions we are asking about education today, as well as the criticisms we are making, are not new. Even highly personalized education has been going on in the form of one-to-one teaching and learning dyads for centuries. The change brought about by modern computing is the potential to implement such old solutions on a planetary scale. It won’t be easy. That’s why we’re still struggling with it after 50 years of personal computing. But we can succeed — if — we are willing to address the Devil in the Details.

*History of Computing in Learning and Education, 1960 to 1990

History of Educational Technology a la Wonder Woman

In this reblog, ed tech writer, Audrey Watters, tells it like it is: Although educational technology is often seen as a liberator by its creators, the actual effect is likely to be constriction of the learner. Read this article through to the end and then consider your own goals for education.

The Golden Lasso of Education Technology

This talk was delivered at Davidson College as part of its Annual Teaching Showcase. Ostensibly, it’s an argument for student agency and education technology. (At least, that’s what I was asked to speak about.) So I traced the history of education psychology and teaching and testing machines – through Wonder Woman….
8 May 2015